Is Film Dead? Then Why Do People Keep Wishing For It To Return?

11 04 2012

I am a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is that Academy.  The one that gives out the Oscars every year. Though, actually, that’s only one teeny tiny part of what the Academy does.

One other thing that it does is to recognize great student work from around the world — by giving out Student Oscars. I am one of a whole slew of members who watch shorts (defined as 40 minutes or under — which often doesn’t seem so short) from non-U.S. film schools so we can vote on the ones that we think represent filmmakers who we would love to see be nominated for feature films in the future.  It’s a great committee

But something odd happened the other night, and it dovetailed nicely with an annual survey that Harry Miller conducts for A.C.E. every year.

Here’s the odd thing that happened.  One of the committee members got up and noted that fewer and fewer of the films submitted to us are captured on film. This member wondered if there wasn’t some way that we acknowledge and reward films that were actually shot on film. He wasn’t suggesting that we vote with that in mind, he hastened to add. He just felt that the Academy awarded films. And he wanted to acknowledge those that were shot on film.

With that, my jaw nearly dropped to the floor and one of my row-mates asked if I wanted to stand up and kick some butt.  Well, I did want to do that, though it was not the forum for that. So I kept my seat, and put my jaw back in its proper place.

You see, it seems to me that what we really do in the Academy is honor good stories, well told (THE ARTIST notwithstanding). It doesn’t matter if they’re captured on a Flip Cam (well, not anymore, I guess) or 70mm. Entrancing, captivating stories know no format.

This was borne out by a survey that Harry Miller helps to conduct every year among members of A.C.E. who are editing movies and television. Since 2004 he has asked a number of questions. One of them is what format (“camera original” in his survey) the editors’ projects were captured on. Back in 2004, the breakdown went something like this:

16mm film 7.5%
35mm film 72.6%
70mm 0%
DV-HD 0%
HD (24p) 10%
Digital (Drive/Tape/etc.) 0%

Now, let’s jump ahead a mere seven years to last year – 2011.

16mm film 2.48%
35mm film 15.53%
70mm 0.62%
DV-HD 15.53%
Digital (Drive/Tape/etc.) (includes 24p) 62.11%
Other 4.35%

If my math is correct (and I was pretty damned good at simple math back in high school) that is a six-fold increase in Digital acquisition, while 35mm film fell to one-fourth of its 2004 percentage.

Now Harry would be the first to confess that this survey was completely non-scientific. It includes pretty much whoever wanted to respond and doesn’t include anyone who either forgot or didn’t want to respond. But the trend is completely obvious. Kodak isn’t just in bankruptcy, its film side is dead, dead, dead. Labs may be making some decent money making prints worldwide, but more than 50% of U.S. theaters are digital now and the world is fast catching up. Those cinematographers who are still developing film negative are looking at a future in which it will get increasingly more difficult (and, hence, more expensive) to process film neg. Which means that fewer and fewer productions will shoot film. Which means that lab work will get even more expensive.

Which means that film will pretty much die. No, let me take that back.  It won’t “pretty much die,” it will totally absolutely die.

Since all of our theaters will eventually be digital projection (and nearly 100% of our films will go through a digital finish anyway), I defy anyone’s mother or non-industry friend to tell the difference between a digital capture film like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or the upcoming SPIDERMAN 3, and a film capture. Either subconsciously or consciously.

Wishing that film would come back seems about as pointless to me as pining after those really great lemon cookies that Keebler used to make that I loved so much.  That now are dead, dead, dead.

I think it’s time to reward “good stories, well told” and forget how they were shot. Or, let’s bring those Keebler Lemon Cookies back.

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Color Correction Made Easy — Well, Easier

23 07 2009

Color Correction Window in Media Composer

Color Correction Window in Media Composer

One of the mystical and wonderful aspects of finishing a film is color correction where you get the opportunity to give an entire visual “feel” to your image. When I did the low budget JACK IN THE BOX, we couldn’t really afford to light every nook and cranny of the basement location in the dark, moody feel that the director wanted. In post production, using Magic Bullet Looks, among other tools, the colorist (and that was not me — my wife insists that I must be color blind when she sees what I wear to work every day) was able to put the characters into an arena of increasing panic and jeopardy.

But whenever I go into tackle color correcting some work, it’s clear that the task is not as easy as Apple or Avid would have you believe.  “Just click on the flesh tone” or “Just click on something that must be black” or “Find me the whitest part of the frame.”  Never looks right to me.

And then there’s the aspect of what I’m looking at the image on. The temptation among editors (and certainly among many of my students) is to color correct with whatever is right in front of them — often a laptop screen, or the perfectly good but not-meant-for-color-correction client monitors.

Mike Jones, over at Digital Basin, has gone a great way to helping me to understand the concepts behind color correction (or “colour grading” as he calls it). He essentially breaks the process down into three parts:

1. Impression – our visual response
This kind of grade is one designed to imprint on the mind of the viewer an element beyond the picture; to leave an impression by creating a visual response from a set of tones overlaying the image.

2. Expression – our emotional response
The Expressionist grade reflects emotional states, emotional changes and emotional journey’s.

3. Construction – our cultural response
A Constructivist grade is one that builds upon, exploits or plays with or against pre-existing knowledge the viewer may have.

This is actually a pretty good way of thinking of the process. How can we get it look right, then how can we get it to feel right, and finally how can we get it to seem right within our world. He goes into much more detail about this, including giving valuable examples, and it would be well worth a trip to his site to check it out.

He also has a link to a colorist who has a great site of his own, Kevin Shaw. The site has number of great resources for the color blind people like me. One article, From One Light to Final Grade, is a particularly good description of the entire process.

Oh, also, there is a section in my book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, in which I deal with how color and camera influence storytelling.

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Brighter hopes for Digital Theaters

22 06 2009

The recent news that Sony and Regal Theaters reached an agreement to install 4K projectors at Regal Theaters, combined with Friday’s item that the German Federal Film Board (FFA) agreed to provide 40 million Euros (that’s over 55 million US type dollars) to help the digitization of German theaters, shows that the feature film world is finally beginning to get its digital film houses in order.

Of course, there is plenty of desperation in these measures, as well as a large dollop of politics (the FFA co-produces films, and Sony is one of the majors and mini-majors that is still standing). But as the panicked move into 3-D and IMAX shows, the distributors and exhibitors — who are often on opposite ends of the interest continuum when it comes to showing films — are both smelling the snapping dog of internet distribution behind them.

It’s not that 4K makes the films look much better than a typical HD projector. Of course, there are those who see the differences, but most filmgoers couldn’t tell the difference if the words “This Is Better” were flashed on screen during the 4K projection. But it’s that 4K fits into the present filmmaking workflow so much better when you start to look at the very gimmicks that could keep recalcitrant filmgoers in theater seats. The high-powered digital effects of Big Tentpole monstrosities like TRANSFORMERS are created in that high res.  Digital Intermediates are increasingly being done in 4K. 3-D begs for higher resolution in order to create lower cost distribution.

In short, 4K finally makes sense as a differentiator between the theater experience and your living room (even if you’ve got a nerdlike sound system and huge-screen television there). If you don’t have the story to bring them in, at least get the high-priced splash and, for now, that looks way better on a big screen with great sound and incredible effects of things blowing up. All things that the smaller-budgeted indie films and web-based projects can’t really deliver.

I’m not sure where this leaves a film like Woody Allen’s latest WHATEVER WORKS, which had a visual effects component that could barely fill up one screen’s worth in the end credits. But, after years of pooh-poohing 4K as a real possibility in theaters, I must say that I’m thinking that it could really happen. In this case, it’s not the audience that is clamoring for it. And it’s not solely the distributors, finally. It’s the entire chain — all the way to the exhibitors.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Will it make the filmgoing experience more awesome? I doubt it. Will it make the filmmaking experience easier? I doubt it. Will it make the transition of films to all sorts of ancillary markets easier? Probably, by a hair’s breadth. I’m waiting to see if it does what the industry clearly wants it to — to bring more butts into the seats, and to make the entire process a little cheaper.

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Just What Did Videotape Leaders Look Like Daddy?

16 06 2009

Larry Jordan’s latest issue of Final Cut Studio Newsletter has this interesting flashback tip for those people who are printing to tape. I’m still used to seeing this for delivery to networks, but file-based workflows may make some of this obsolete.

In any case, this about what a video leader should look like. Perhaps the most useful bit in here is a description of what should be on the tape delivery slate. I was actually doing something similar to this for the new edition of my FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, which should be out early in 2010. Until then, Larry’s site is a must-see for this kind of cool information.

Hell, even after my book comes out, his site will be must-see.

=========================================================================================

Most final deliveries for high-end productions are output to video tape, either HDCAM or HDCAM SR and not delivered as a file. When outputting to tape, you need to allow room for leader material which the engineering types use to make sure the tape playback matches the spec of when the tape was recorded.

Traditionally, this leader material is:

Timecode Content
00:58:30:00 Bars and tone
00:59:30:00 Black audio and video
00:59:40:00 Program slate
00:59:50:00 Black audio and video
01:00:00:00 Program start

A program slate consists of:

  • Program Title Producer / Director / Agency responsible
  • Date output to tape
  • Running time (Never include frames and always round up)
  • Audio mix format (stereo, mono, multi-track)
  • Timecode format (Drop-frame or non-drop-frame)

To create these leader materials in Final Cut you can either use File > Print to Video, or build them yourself in the Timeline. If you create them in the Timeline, go to Sequence > Settings > Timeline tab and change the sequence timecode to 58:30.

That way, the timecode of your sequence will match the timecode on your tape. Note, to make sure all your program times are correct, use File > Edit to Tape to record to video tape.

====================================================

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How Not To Screw Up Your HD Project

24 03 2008

Chad Denning and the folks over at Gamma Blast, a Nashville-based post-production house have put together a pretty straight-forward guide to bringing your project into an HD format. Subtitled “Be A Hero in Your HD Project” the piece, the guide talks about the various flavors of HD, as well as issues involving Standard Definition. The most important bit of information, to my mind, comes in the first paragraph.

Thinking backwards from the distribution step will guide the process for HD because the technical requirements of the distributor will dictate what you need.

In other words, don’t just shoot. Prepare to shoot. And make sure that the preparation takes into account the full project — all the way through post-production. As any number of wiser people than me have noted, the camera manufacturers are rapidly addressing production issues (easy capture onto the smallest amount of digital media possible), without acknowledging that the needs of post-production are almost the exact reverse (memory is so cheap that we hate what compression — particularly HDV compression — will do to our process).

So, it is wisest to know what you’re going to have to deliver at the end of your process as you’re making decisions about what to capture on.

Thanks go to Larry Jordan and the Digital Production Buzz podcast for the interview with Denning that led me to this website.

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HD Craziness

23 03 2008

I’m old enough to remember that, when HD first came onto the scene, the promise was that it would create one great standard for everything and all of the problems of NTSC versus PAL and SECAM would be gone forever.

That seems like the Good Ol’ Days now.

The preponderance of HD standards makes the days of Standard Definition seem like a holiday. Shane Ross has a fantastic blog entry, on his Little Frog In High Def blog, called “The First Hiccup” that talks about his problems in getting an episode of his series out the door to be shipped to the network. It’s a story that will curl the hair of anyone who ever believed in the myth of One True Standard.

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Interlacing

21 03 2008

No, that isn’t an obscure sociological term about personal interactions. It’s an obscure technical term. In the video world it refers to the way in which an image is projected on a screen.

In a nutshell, the way it works is this. For a typical US television set, each frame of image is divided into 625 (whoops, my bad, I mean 525) lines. All of the odd numbered lines are scanned across the television screen in 1/60th of a second and then, while the image is still sitting in our brains, all of the even numbered frames are scanned across the screen. The brain combines each of these fields (as each of the groups of scan lines is called) into one full image. Voila. A frame.

Note that this is very different from film, in which the entire frame is displayed at the same time.

The various flavors of Hi Definition can be either interlaced or not (this last is called “progressive”). That is what the letters “p” and “i” mean when someone (who is usually try to sell you something) tells you that “This set is 1080i” or “You’ll like this better because it’s 720p.” Note that, in both cases, you should run for the hills — or, at least, the closest Internet station to help you survive the bullshit meter.

So, why am I giving you this long-winded lesson in tech terminology

Will Richardson who is a film director/editor for The Heliconia Press (a sporting publisher and DVD content creation company) publishes a great blog called The Video Animal. Recent postings include a series on HD on The Cheap, which are well worth reading. His most recent posting is the start of a new series entitled How To Post Video On The Web. This part is all about interlacing, and describes how to get rid of it. His approach to defining “interlacing” is a little different from mine, and mashes it up with a concept called “persistence of vision” which the theory that describes why the human mind can see a series of 24 or 30 still images in one second, and perceive them as one fluid moving image.

But his description of how to get rid of the interlacing when posting something to the web is clear and concise. He also recommends reading Adobe’s guide to compression, which I highly recommend reading if you have trouble sleeping at night. Seriously, though, you’ve got to love a technical guide when it contains the following line:

Compression technologies take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of human senses by reducing data that isn’t likely to be perceived.

Now that’s riveting reading, isn’t it?

Cockiness aside, take a look at this series from Will, who has a fine and friendly writing style to help you through these difficult subjects. And you’ll also learn quite a bit about filmmaking on the cheap from him.

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My Panel at Sundance

20 01 2008

On Friday, Michael Phillips and I gave a talk called “Creating a Low-Budget Film with High Production Value.” One of the things that we did was focus on a project that we worked on together — a low budget character-based psychological thriller called JACK IN THE BOX. DigitcalContentProducer blogged about the panel.

Michael, who is the brains of this duo, has a great technical background, which he was able to bring to his dual role as co-editor (with me) and producer of the film. He and I discussed preparing for the shoot, in a way that could help minimize post-production problems. We concentrated on two avenues. The first was the technical preparation that enabled us to finish a DI in a format that could feed multiple distribution formats as well as accentuate storytelling points. The second was the script preparation that is necessary in order to know how to shoot and edit in a way that promotes a great understanding of story.

From my perspective, the panel went very well — with a full house and dozens of people who stayed after the six o’clock finish for nearly an hour, to ask more questions. The attendees at this, and previous, Sundance panels are usually fascinating, committed filmmakers who are looking for ways to improve themselves. That’s why I love doing them.

The next day’s panel, a discussion between Saar Klein and Doug Liman (editor and director of JUMPERS) is profiled in the blog right here.

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What Does Collaboration Really Involve?

12 08 2007

One of the things that I did at the recent UFVA Conference (from which I’ve just returned, having sweated through four shirts in the 103 degree heat and high humidity) was run the opening night keynote interview with editor Steven Cohen, the guy who runs the great blog Splice Here.

I always enjoy talking to Steve because, though he is far more intelligent about how Non Linear Editing technology works than I am, our careers have actually paralleled in some wonderful ways. Not only has Steve edited for more years than I care to admit, but he’s also written a book (“Avid Media Composer Techniques and Tips”) which helped me make the transition from Lightworks to Avid editing. He was my editor at the Editors Guild Magazine when I was writing the series of interviews with film editors called “The View from the Cutting Room Ceiling” in which I went over a scene from a new film in detail with its editor.

He has also taught (many years at AFI; he was also head of the editing track there).

And he was an early adopter of digital editing, just like I was, though I was sitting in front of the Lightworks in version 0.9 and he was over on the Avid side.

So, whenever we get together we ended up talking fluidly for hours. Here, we got to do it in front of a few hundred people, though it seemed pretty much the same.

We ranged over a wide variety of topics, including how the thought process of an editor works, showing a sequence from the Bob Rafelson movie BLOOD AND WINE, which Steve edited. He talked about the way in which the director of photography shot Steadicam coverage, designed to help the editing process.

This led into a great discussion about collaboration. In the two parts of the scene that he showed (a bar fight that included the Steadicam shot mentioned above, and a car chase ending in an extended crash) there were two different ways in which everyone collaborated. In the chase, for instance, Steven faxed the storyboards to his editing computer, so he could then animate them in a timeline, complete with sound. This allowed Rafelson, Steve and the dp to help plan shots even better as the shoot unfolded.

The point that we evolved to was that there is a great dialectic that can happen when creative partners are involved together on a film. In the editing room this works by an editor looking at the footage shot and shaping it with his/her interpretation. Then, after the director/producer/whoever sees that cut, a new cut evolves that is a combination of that edit and other ideas. I’ve heard this described as “these/antithesis/synthesis” and, when done collaboratively (as opposed to angrily and fearfully) it makes for a much better film.

This is why I fight for all of my students to have someone else edit their thesis films. Not only does it help them to learn how to communicate their ideas better, but it makes for a better film. And this was Steve’s point as well.

There is an unfortunate tendency at all budget levels to assume that the editor can and should do it all. Now that we have packages like the Final Cut Pro Suite, we are looked at as people who can color correct, do dialogue editing, shape soundtracks, build DVDs, and much more. And while we can do some of that it doesn’t mean that we are good at it. My wife constantly asks me, as I’m walking out the door in the morning “Are you wearing that?” So you’d probably be foolish to ask me to color correct your film. Can I do a passable job of it? Sure. But you should actually get someone who is really really good at it, to do the final for your film.

Steve is seeing the same things and it’s a scary trend. It’s much more likely that we will bring the total artistry of our films down, at the same time we lower their budgets.

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Top Ten Things Every Indie Filmmaker Should Know Before They Start

9 08 2007

I figured I’d use the same title as Mike Curtis did on his blog posting today.

I’ve been on a few panels here at the UFVA Conference in Denton, Texas including a fantastic interview session with keynoter Steven Cohen on Tuesday night, but this one was really interesting. The stated topic was “10 Things Every Indie Filmmaker Should Know Before Making Their Movie. A guide to making a great film on a budget — and doing it right!” (you can see why I abbreviated it in the title of this post). It was moderated by Ashley Kennedy from Avid, Mike Curtis from HDForIndies, ad John Sterneman from Dragonslayer Post in Burbank, a facility that offers complete post services for the indie filmmaker.

Last night we all went out to dinner to talk about the panel. We had previously had one long phone conversation so we could get the ten points together, but now we wanted to get to know each other.

The top of my head exploded.

These two guys know so much about the technical world of post production that I felt like an idiot. I was worried that I’d be completely out of my depth. But those of you who know me, also know that I fight gallantly to put the storytelling aspect of film front and center. And that is what I wanted to make sure we included.

I needn’t have worried. I’ll reproduce the ten talking points below (as copied from Mike’s blog), but we ended up talking about many of them (thanks to Ashley to keeping us on track) set within the framework of collaboration and advance planning. Sure, there are ten points here, but they really all boiled down to these two. Put together the right team and let them advise you (and listen to them — don’t be an asshole) to create a thorough game plan for the entire process — from pre-production through distribution and exhibition.

  1. Put together the right team. Be sure you have the right members involved at the right time. For instance, the editor should be involved in pre-production and the producer should be involved in post. This was a far flung and all encompasing topic – this also includes getting the right team that knows the nitty gritty of their jobs and will see to all the granular implementation details to make sure stuff goes right. By default, the right team will include folks to steer you clear of certain pitfalls, warn you of expensive or limiting choices, and be able to think on their feet when contingencies are needed to be invented on the spot.
  2. Work backwards and know what you want to deliver before you start shooting. Plan your post workflow (i.e. deliver on film? HD?).
    I say this all the time to clients when they start asking about what to shoot on – I say STOP – what do you want to end up with at the end of the day? Work from there.
  3. In pre-production know what budget is for post and stick to it! Perhaps even account for more $$ in POST. Many producers end up
    spending 3x the money in post because they didn’t plan accordingly. This folds into a saying I’ve come up with – “Most indies would rather save a nickel on Friday that costs the $20 on Monday…and even if they knew they were doing it, many still would, because they didn’t have the nickel on Friday.”
  4. Don’t just try to piece the workflow together. Make sure your NLE (Non Linear Editor — like Avid or Final Cut Pro) supports your camera and the formats that you are shooting in. Be sure that your offline edit will seamless make it to the online. Know how to get final product out of the system. This one
    was all me – for a good example, see the post from a couple of days ago about Pull Trigger, Then Aim (link to follow).
  5. Have a realistic schedule from the get go. Based on your budget – know how many days you will need to shoot, weeks you’ll need to edit, etc. Many have unrealistic post schedules. As an add-on to that, just because you only have enough money for a 6 not 12 week creative edit DOES NOT MEAN that you’ll get it done in that timeframe.
  6. With so many choices – be smart about what you choose for technology, talent, location, etc. Overprepare and execute. Small projects can take the same or more amount of prep as larger projects. Small budget = use every penny wisely.
  7. Know your story! If changes need to be made – make them on set, not in post. Plot point vs character point. If the story isn’t coming together based on the shots – it can cause 2-3x increase in post production.
  8. Producers need a better grasp on the distribution process – particularly for indie film. Understand the requirements that distributors have. Avoid getting a 20 page document after QC of what needs to be “fixed” before the film is ready for distribution.
  9. Understand how to appeal to distributors. It’s always about the best story. Know whether to spend funds on name power vs. technology. Discern hype from reality – when It comes to vendor marketing. Know how to get your “name” out there.
  10. No role is unimportant in film. Even if tools have a color application – you still need a “real” colorist to do the job. Best use what tools you have (media management.)

Mike promises to go back up and go into detail on the points, so you should loop back there periodically over the next day or so. But all in all it was a great experience.

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